You Don’t Have to Wait Until 65 to Retire [Chills 20 Sponsored by Providend]

Every race has a finish line. In the minds of many people, the finish line in the marathon of life is retirement, where one enjoys his life at 65 after decades of working. What if we can have multiple, mini retirements in our lifetime instead? How do we go about achieving that while ensuring that our finances are in good order? 

Max Keeling shares insights on the fascinating topic of mini retirement in this special TFC Chills series brought to you by Providend, Singapore’s first fee-only wealth advisory firm. Having had several mini retirements himself, Max talks about the benefits of mini retirement and the steps you should take to go about embarking on your own mini retirement plan while managing your finances, from documenting your goals and dreams in life to diversifying your income streams.

The traditional concept of retirement is constantly being challenged in this episode. The fresh perspectives offered by Max and Reggie (our host) will encourage listeners to open their minds and think about how mini retirements can enrich our lives and how current global shifts can make them a reality for everyone.

To get an honest second opinion about your finances from Providend, go to https://thefinancialcoconut.com/work-with-providend/

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podcast Transcript

Reggie: Mini retirement sound like a super sexy amazing idea where you can work a few years, make great money and progress, and then take 6 to 12 months to have some fun, do your thing, travel around, pick up a new hobby, what have you not… but then readily transit back into the job market as if nothing has ever happened or even progress into your next venture. But is that the truth? 

What are the realities in the career markets? How should you envision your finances if you’re no longer going for the 65 year retirement benchmark? Will you be priced out on major milestones like owning a property, setting up a family and financial progress? We’ll explore all that and more today.

Expand Full Transcript

Welcome to a special mini series of Providend Chills with TFC. And this series will bring on a team of wealth managers and financial professionals with varied life experiences to share about the topics we believe you will be interested in. 

Definitely this series is sponsored by Providend. If you cannot yet tell, they are Singapore’s first fee-only worth advisory firm. Meaning all their clients pay them a fixed fee for planning their finances. They do not accept any fees or compensation from product providers at all and they believe that with this model, there will be no conflict of interest. 

So to talk about this topic, we must have someone that’s been there and done that. Having traveled around after leaving his job in one of the biggest banks, build a location independent business, bought a home in Spain with his wife and plunged back into professional financial planning career with the team in Singapore, I’m excited to introduce you, Max Keeling, Head of Expat Division at Providend, avid backpacker and someone I believe is living life to the fullest rather than endlessly pursuing more money. 

So, okay… paint me a little bit of picture. You left the corporate job and you jumped into a digital business right? That doesn’t sound like retirement? 

So what is retirement to you? 

Max Keeling: I think most people do not have many financial mentors or role models. So it tends to be you look at what your parents did, you look at what your grandparents did. And really things have changed a lot over the last 20, 30 years in terms of what retirement means. Most young people still “I’ve got this old model mindset”, I think.

If you think like we might call them in Singapore, the Pioneer Generation, or you got the baby boomers, and really that was about… you perhaps didn’t have a degree, you got a job, you might’ve worked for the same company all your life, you’ve got money going into CPF. If you’re overseas, you’ve got money going into probably a pension scheme and then you retire at 65 and then you perhaps live till you’re 80.

So you’ve got 15 years of retirement and you’ve got enough money to kind of cover you. Whereas now what we tend to see is people tend to be more educated. They might have a  degree, they are building professional careers that might work for a number of different employers over the lifetime. Or we’ve seen more people maybe have 2 or 3 careers. So they could do 10 or 15 years in one career and decide, “hey! I don’t want to be an accountant.  I want to be a wine maker” or something and then move into that for 15 years. 

Reggie: That’s like midlife crisis.

Max Keeling: Yeah!

Reggie: It’s like, “oh I miss engineering.” And then I was like, “I hate this, I’m going to make wine.”

Max Keeling: And so the reality of that though is there’s lots of studies that show as people move around and they tend to not save as much money as they would if they’d just stayed in one place. So it could be that you had high earning job, but then because you’re switching, maybe you’re not putting as much money away.  And also, people are living longer now than they kind of did the older generation.

So for me, I guess retirement is the old model that could be seen as a life deferment scheme where you say, “when I retire, I’m going to do all the fun things I’ve wanted to do.” People want to go traveling, I’m going to take up golf, I’m going to do this, I’m going to do that. And it’s always one day I’m going to do that. And for me it’s more about, okay, I don’t want to defer all the fun stuff, I want to scatter that throughout my life. And that’s the whole concept of this mini retirement idea is if you’ve always wanted to travel, why wait till you’re 65 to book that round the world tour? Why not do it when you’re 30, 35, 40, 45?

And possibly you might want to live, you might want to work longer. You know, we might, we see people are working into their sixties and seventies because they enjoy it, but maybe it’s not a full-time job. Maybe it’s helping out different people. And so I think that idea of work has become a lot more fluid.

And I think a lot of young people are still looking at what their parents did. And comparing themselves and saying, “oh, I’ve built up enough money or not” and I think you have to realize there’s a lot more options available to you now. 

Reggie: Yeah. 

Max Keeling: And the reality is your parents and your siblings and your friends and your grandparents probably won’t like it if you say you’re going to do something unusual because that’s not what they did. So you’ll get a lot of resistance. 

Reggie: I know, I’m vibing with you. 

Max Keeling: Yeah, but you’re in a different situation and so you’ve got to think about what works for you and make sure you’ve got a plan around that. And do you see whether you can do something a little bit different?

Reggie: So when I was traveling, so I did the whole travel, go around, meet people and then do the whole backpacking thing, right? So I actually met this one guy from the UK and he was cycling down to Asia. 

Max Keeling: Wow, that’s nice.

Reggie: So he was on his bike, 4 bags and then 2 bags in front 2 bags at the back. And then he was just cycling all the way from London, cross the straits, and then all the way down. I met him in China and then after that he continues cycle all the way to Singapore and then went to Australia. I was like, what the hell is this guy doing? 

And that is the kind of the beauty of choices today, right? The modern way of life that you have this kind of ability to move around and in many ways to re-envision life.  And there was some discussion about life becoming more and more nomadic?

Max Keeling: Yes. 

Reggie: With the whole digital interface that you can get your jobs online and all those kind of stuff, right? So that’s a beauty. 

Max Keeling: And then you look at COVID, this has been a great mass experiment to show whether you can do your role from home. I’ve worked in banks and financial services for a long time. If we had said in 2019, we want to see if we can get the whole workforce to work from home. That would have been a massive project that was probably like a five-year thing, bringing in consultants, trying to build the infrastructure. But all of a sudden you had this global event that said, we’re going to force everyone and we’re just going to see what happens. So everyone very quickly adapted to Zoom and Microsoft Teams and all that kind of stuff. I think it’s proven to a lot more people that you can work from home. And if you can work from home, you don’t necessarily have to be in the same country. 

So all of a sudden we’ve seen a lot of case studies come up in different countries where people are saying, “hey, if I can get a flight out, why don’t I go and stay in Bali or Thailand or France or whatever, I’ll be there for 3 or 4 months. I can do my job exactly the same because everyone’s at home and then I can come back.” So I think that will definitely play out over the next decade in terms of jobs that people previously thought they would have to come to a physical location in a specific country in a specific 9 to 5 or whatever the time is. Actually that’s been challenged massively, which is exciting.

Reggie: Yeah. And do you consider that like retirement? You know, working on the go and being nomadic and all? 

Max Keeling: I think you have to look at it as a spectrum. I think in terms of you’ve got that traditional work for one company, work till you’re 65. Then on the extreme end of that, you’ve got the FIRE movement: financially independent, retire early.

Maybe you gonna save as much as you can and you’re going to try and finish work at 35, 40.  And then you’ve got everything in between, which then says you could be taking a break of 1 to 3 months every few years. So even within that, you’ve got, you could take a sabbatical which is usually workplace sponsored. A lot of workplaces now have schemes where you can take unpaid leave and then come back to your job. Or it could be what classes as a career break where you quit your job and then go off for 3 or 4 months. It could be flexible working where you say, you know what, I’d love to live in Bali, but maybe you don’t like the idea of quitting your job and seeing what you can do. Maybe it’s trying to bring in, “well, why don’t I try and live in Bali now for 3 months of the year but still keep my job.” So I think it’s not necessarily about retirement as I’m never going to work. It’s about saying what works for you and if you like the idea of periods of time where you don’t work, maybe you could scatter those through your working career. 

Or like I’m a big fan of Tim Ferriss and The 4-Hour Workweek. And the idea of that is that it’s not about not working. That’s about saying how can I create a stream of income that is not dependent on me being in a location. So maybe that’s building an online business. And if I can build an automated system, which is a lot easier now, maybe you’re working 10 hours a week if you want to, you might want to work 60 hours a week, but you want to do it in Bali, no picking on Bali. 

Reggie: Nomad heaven, just saying.

Max Keeling: So I think it’s about redefining… like Providend, we would tend to call it financial independence. It’s more about, can you build up your savings over the long term to give you the ability that if you didn’t want to work, you don’t have to. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that traditionally, great I’ve made it, I’m 60, I’m going to retire early. It could be that you haven’t quite reached financial independence, but “hey, you want to take 2 years off work. Let’s plan it out.” I think you’ll be fine. And you can just pick back up where you were before. Rather than this traditional chart of your assets growing, growing, growing, and then you retire and they go down, maybe they go up and then they come down a little bit and then go up. So that doesn’t fully answer your question, but I think it’s, again, it’s maybe it’s just inspiring people to say, we’re not saying that you should eat rice and beans and then retire at 35, like the FIRE movement. Some people love the idea.

Reggie: I love how vivid it is. Rice and beans. Okay, 20 years you get there. 

Max Keeling: Some people do it. I mean you know, they’re like I’m going to live in the smallest place possible and I’m going to do it. That’s great for them. For some people it’s going to be say, you know what, if you’re in a corporate career and you don’t want to be a lawyer or whatever you’ve ended up doing, maybe that’s fine. You could do that for 10 years and then realize you can change careers. It might be scary, but you could change careers and might give you a work-life balance. And in between that career change, maybe you’ll take a year off to figure out what you want to do. And that’s perfectly fine. You’re not firebombing your financial plan. It’s okay. 

Reggie: And that’s part about the scariness right? People are really scared of it. You know, it’s not the narrative yet, most people are still subscribed to the 65 year old one time, all the way, you know, marathon kind of thing. 

Max Keeling: Yeah. 

Reggie: And while we’re not propagating the other side, you’re somewhere in between maybe 10 years in your career, you take a break, revisit it if you want to do this again. You know, so maybe you would do 3 or 4 retirements throughout your lives? Which is beautiful. But the first one probably is a little scary. 

Reggie: Right. So how would we go about that? 

Max Keeling: So for instance, when I was at Barclays, first thing I did was to speak to my manager, which I was worried about. But actually he was very supportive and it turned out he had a couple of breaks. And then when you speak to HR (Human Resource), I found out actually Barclays is fine for employees to take, I think you were allowed to take 2, 6 or 12 month breaks in your career if you wanted, unpaid. So the first thing I would do, if someone’s thinking about it, is to find out from your company whether this is actually a done thing. Because imagine you’re working for a large corporate, let’s say you’re working for DBS at the moment…

Reggie: Not sponsored by the way. This is not employee recruitment spots. 

Max Keeling: But you find out, “oh yeah! All you have to do is ask as long as your manager’s approved.” If you want to take 3 months off, not a problem. You could take 6 months, you could take 12 months. I think that’s a really good way of trialing it because you’ve got a job to come back to.

Now, if you take 3 months off, you’ll probably come back to the same job. If you want to take 12 months off, you’re probably have to sign something to say, we will find you a job when you come back, but it might not be the same one. 

Which is fair enough because you’re going to be gone for a while, but that could be a really easy way of doing it in terms of saying, why don’t you just test the waters and I haven’t got to quit to go and do this. And you might say, “okay, is 3 months really a mini retirement? Is it just an extended holiday?” But I think it’s how you treat it and what mindset you go in with. So, some people just need a break. Maybe just feel burnt out and you do just need that 3 months off. 

For someone else it might be, you’re going to use that 3 to 6 months to maybe upscale yourself in another area. So let’s say after this podcast, you straight away go and read The 4-Hour Workweek and you’re like, I love it but I know nothing about building online businesses. You could easily spend a couple of months just getting immersed in that whole world and getting to know that and really figuring out is that something you feel you could genuinely transition to. Or let’s say you have always wanted to be working in a vineyard. Let’s use that again.

Reggie: Is that like what you want to do? 

Max Keeling: No, but I have a few clients that going through this process actually did want to buy a vineyard. And when you say okay, well let’s go and investigate how much is it to buy a vineyard? And I’ve got a client at the moment, they’ve just bought a vineyard in New Zealand. It’s not as expensive as you think, and it’s not as crazy. And so if that’s somebody’s dream…

Reggie: How much would it cost? 

Max Keeling: So they bought somewhere for about SGD 700,000.

Reggie: Okay. 

Max Keeling: Yeah, so it’s not massive. You can buy some for cheaper but maybe it makes crappy wine.  But it’s about if that’s your dream, you could go and explore that. So let’s say you did want to become a wine maker. You could go and volunteer to work on a vineyard in France, New Zealand, Australia for free! If you phoned up and said, “Hey, I want to come and work for free!” They’d be like, “Yeah! Great!”

Reggie: Come! [laughter]

Max Keeling: Yeah! You could… imagine you could spend a month in the champagne region of France. Okay, maybe not at the moment with COVID. But let’s say when things open up, you could use that time to go and explore and go “actually no, this isn’t for me” or it just sparks an interest. 

So I would start small and use that as an opportunity to explore some different options or at least have the time to go and do it. Because I think a lot of people get stressed out with working long hours, especially I find in Singapore… If you’re working for a large company as well, you do get caught out on time zones.  When the UK comes in like three o’clock in the afternoon, you’ve got late night calls if you’re working with New York.  Some people can get stressed out that I haven’t got the time to investigate these things on the side. Maybe that’s why you just try out a break. Even if it was for a month, you could probably get a month off work just with holiday.

Reggie: Yeah! 

Max Keeling: And speak to your manager and say, “can I just take a month off? I’ll take all my leave in one gum”, and go in with that intention of… I’m going to use that time to investigate what works for me. 

Reggie: So I think the beauty is about exploring right? I think a lot of people have this idea that retirement is a time where you don’t do anything. You know but based on the preliminary discussion that we’re having right, it sounds like retirement has a lot of things going on. 

Max Keeling: Yeah. 

Reggie: It’s like vineyard, you know, travel, all these stuff right. What do you think are some things that people should really consider when it comes to taking this kind of short retirement? You know, what would kind of allow them to benefit? I want to steer away from the whole like maximizing your retirement and all that because I don’t think that’s kind of how life should be. Everything is about maximization. 

Max Keeling: Yes.

Reggie: But truth be told, as I was traveling, first few weeks was so exciting. And then it became like, you know it’s kind of like the same thing again and again right? So then I kind of, you know the system is you go to this new city, you go to this new town, you explore 2 weeks in, you kind of find your favorite coffee joint, you find your favorite dining place. And then it becomes like you start living here. It’s very different as to how we were to envision the whole excitement about traveling and all right? So how would mini retirements kind of look like in your view?

Max Keeling: Yeah, so just going back if someone is in a corporate career, one thing they should take comfort in as well is if you left for a year, you can totally pick up where you left off and you come back. In a few years’ time, nobody will remember that you took a year off. So don’t worry that, “oh my God, I’m going to lose my technical knowledge or this or any of that.” Like, I’m sorry you’re not actually as important as you think you are? The world will revolve and you can pick back up. So, don’t feel you have to do three months just cause we’re saying this. You know, if you want to be brave, go for a longer period. 

For me and my wife, we found we liked this idea of slow travel. So we’ve tried the first break I had with Barclays, I did do 6 months off and we did the traditional backpacking where you’re moving every 2 or 3 days. So we started off in Japan, spent a month going through China, then going through Thailand, Malaysia, and then Australia, and then New Zealand, and then fly back home. And like you said, it’s great and you get to see those places, but then sometimes she’d just sick of moving all the time and unpacking and all of that. But it’s great to try it.  Then when I left in 2016, we did this slow travel idea. We would move every 3 months, but we’d stay in one place. We went to Chiang Mai, we rented an Airbnb apartment for three months and did exactly what you said, like live life, find out where the supermarket is, the coffee shop.  Then we did 3 months in Gran Canaria which is, if you look on a map is just off the coast of Africa but it’s considered past Spain. We did…

Reggie: A beautiful place by the way. 

Max Keeling: Yeah, it’s amazing!  We’ve got a small house in Ibiza in Spain so we did 6, 7 months there. We did 3 months in Australia, in one place in Noosa. So for us, that worked really well for us because you feel like you get to test the lifestyle out. You can rent somewhere. You can get into your food routine the same. Whereas obviously when you are travelling, you’re moving every day. It’s great that you get to try lots of different food and eat at restaurants, but then every so often you’re like, I’m just sick of eating out. 

Reggie: I know, I know. 

Max Keeling: But that’s the other option as well. Let’s say someone’s listening to this and they’re 55 and they’re like, “oh, I don’t want to backpack and move all the time.” You don’t have to, you could just say, I’m going to base myself in one place or I’m going to do 3 weeks at a time in different places and just take it slow. It doesn’t have to be… again I think the traveler movement if you like has moved on a lot over the years. So yes, you can do it very cheaply if you want and that’s fun. But  you could just go and space yourself in one place for 3 months.

Reggie: Or you could just pick up something, like learn something new, do something. I had friends who just, you know, they want to learn how to surfboard. There are no waves here right? So they stayed in Australia. And they just did that whole surfing thing for a few months and then seasons off and then they come back and then do their thing. 

Max Keeling: And also I think you don’t have to travel. I think often people think if you have a time off or let’s say took 6 months out, 12 months off, the traditional thing is oh you’ve got to go traveling and some people just like, I’m not into that. So you don’t have to go, you could stay in Singapore and say, “right I’m going to learn a skill, woodworking or whatever.” Well, I think there is…

Reggie: I’m not sure if there’s woodworking here. I think there is. 

Max Keeling: You can, yeah. So, I like the idea of making my own furniture. This is a side project, but as far as I would love to make that chair, this table, you can do woodworking workshops where you go to someone’s workshop, they teach you what to do and you build a chair over time, just as a side. But having said that, I think you can get a lot out of going to another country and just spending time there. Even if you see yourself long-term in Singapore or a different country, I think you grow a lot as a person just by uprooting yourself. 

Reggie: Yes. 

Max Keeling: So what I’ve really taken away massively from travel is actually you don’t need many clothes. Like if you’ve got a backpack and you’ve got 2 or 3 T-shirts, a couple of pairs of shorts, those shorts might be swim shorts as well. You’ve got your pants, you’ve got your socks, you’ve got a few pairs of shoes, you know that’s it. And if you do that for 3 or 4 months, you really get into the routine and you can, if you’re going somewhere nice, you can dress it up. If you go somewhere chill, you can dress down and you’ve got everything you want in a capsule wardrobe. And so in a way it’s quite cathartic to get rid of all of your personal possessions and just see what’s the minimum you can live with so that when you come back to normal life and a normal job, let’s say…

Reggie: Sounds kind of sad. 

Max Keeling: You realize that it’s that chance to detach yourself from material things, and maybe then you realize you can save more money than you thought because you don’t need all the trappings. And I think when you’re in one place, it’s easy to get caught up in the keeping up with the Joneses or keeping up with the tens. And I think you will only get more perspectives when you leave. So I’m not saying everyone has to go traveling, but I think if you could spend a period abroad, I think everyone would benefit from it. And if you’re in places like Thailand, Malaysia, Cambodia and you see what little other people have, it humbles you. That they’re like really happy and you get to see that and then if you come back to a Singapore, you’re like, “wow! I don’t need a massive place to live.”  That can maybe help change people’s patterns then around what they think they’re going to need for retirement in the future and what they feel they call lifestyle costs are here.

Reggie: Yeah. And that’s the beauty of doing a little bit of retirement, like mini retirements along the way. 

Max Keeling: Yeah. 

Reggie: You open up your perspectives, you pick up new skills, you kind of test different ways of living that will lead you to the ultimate retirement when the labor market doesn’t want you.

So at some point it’s not about not wanting to work but maybe you’re obsolete within the labor market and you have to retire. Having tried all these little, little episodes 1 year here, 6 months there, 2 years there kind of gives you a little bit more clarity as to how things can potentially look alike. 

Max Keeling: Yeah. 

Reggie: But people are still generally very concerned. Will that derail my financial plans?

Max Keeling: Yeah. 

Reggie: Right, and that is when we kind of bring in these kind of objective understanding of how much will it cost? You know, how do I go about doing this without derailing my plans? 

Max Keeling: I think a key element of that is you need a plan. So if you are listening to this and you don’t have a life plan with an associate financial plan, that’s where I would start.  It sounds grand, but so a book that I recommend people read is, Money Master the Game by Tony Robbins. Now some people don’t like Tony Robbins, he’s very rah-rah. And the book, it takes him 6 pages to say what he could have said in half a paragraph. But what I really liked about that book is he gets you to think about visions of your life and what you want to achieve. So a lot of people are not interested in money and investing. So it’s like, you shouldn’t be starting there anyway. It’s about get a notepad and pen, go down to Sentosa, sit on the beach, look out to the sea…

Reggie: Tanjong Beach Club. 

Max Keeling: Yeah, maybe not the beach club because you’ll drink and get distracted. Go to Tanjong Beach, but sit by yourself. And just write down, what are some things you would love to achieve? And it doesn’t need to be a grand plan, but it’s like, do you like the idea of traveling? Do you enjoy your job? Maybe you do.  Or are there other options you would have wanted them? What kind of lifestyle do you want? Have you always wanted to own a Porsche or actually cars are not your thing? So that’s fine. Dream big, put down some fantasy things. Let’s say you did one that Ferrari, wicked, I’m all for it. Put it, put down everything you could ever want. And then that starts to give you a bit of an outline of a plan that you can start to put some timelines around that. Then that’s when you should do the financial planning and it can start with just documenting what you’ve currently got. 

You’ll be amazed at how many clients, when they come in we get them to fill out like a data capture form of what you earn, what you think you spend, what assets have you got, what cash have you got? People provide it to us. We then reformat it and present it back to them to say, right, this is the information you’ve given me. Is this right? The number of people, must be 60% go, “oh wow. This is amazing, I’ve never seen this before. Never seen it all in one place.” And you’re like, well, this is just information you’ve given me, right? So, that makes me realize how many people don’t have a handle on their situation. 

So again, just write it down even if you don’t like Excel. This, we’re not talking about rocket science here. There’s just, what you spend, what you wear and what you think you saved, what your cash balances are. And then you can start to do some rough calculations to say, I like the idea of traveling but maybe I’ll do it in 3 years’ time. Or let’s say you said you want to go backpacking for 3 months, you could go and cost that up and work out right, genuinely how much does it cost to go backpacking.  Loads of websites out there you could go and look that up.  

But let’s say it’s going to cost you SGD 15,000. I need to save SGD 15,000 over the next 3 years. I can project that out and I can see what other savings I’ve got. Then you start to get a feel for, if you really go to Excel, you know you could project this out until you’re 65, 70, 80. And you know, I know a lot of people that do and they get excited and they do a lot. Some people are not Excel savvy. This is the kind of stuff we would help people with where we would use software to model out. But you don’t have to, but he’s starting with a plan of it’s your life. Like if you don’t plan it, you’re going to live somebody else’s life plan. So don’t be ashamed if it is materialistic, but at least document it and put it down.

Reggie: Be real with yourself. 

Max Keeling: Yeah. And then see what comes out of that and then see what the finances look like. And God, if you’re going to live till you are 80, taking 2 years of not earning anything is not going to mean anything.  And so maybe putting some plans around it will give people more comfort.  I like The 4-Hour Workweek. He’s got some exercises in there as well for people to say like go and cost up your dream life. So if you genuinely are set at going, “oh I’d love to live in Bali but it’ll never happen.” Guess what! Living in Bali doesn’t cost that much money. 

Reggie: It’s cheap. 

Max Keeling: I mean if you want to live in Seminyak okay, that’s one thing. If you’re going to be in the north of Bali. It’s going to cost you way less than you think. And so, you can go and cost it up. But I think that’s the key thing is, you mentioned having that curiosity of, “Hmm, I wonder how much that does costs.” Can I find someone else that’s already done it? Can I listen to some podcasts of people being interviewed that have made that shift and I can get a feel for what that might look like? But you’ve got to drive the plan. 

Maybe if you want a slightly different lifestyle. Maybe you’ve got to be even better at building plans. Because maybe you can get away with not speaking to a financial advisor or a planner like us. If you’re happy to just have the normal 9 to 5 job, retiring later… but if you want to do something more incredible with your life and more interesting, you’ve got to put the work in. So go and read up around the subject, go and understand more about it. Get involved, get excited about Excel spreadsheets, but maybe it’s because I’m an accountant.

Reggie: Coming from an accountant.

Max Keeling: I know I love spreadsheets, but you know these are the things that can start to give you comfort. People are gonna think I’m crazy, but it’s okay. I’ve got my spreadsheet, I’ve got a budget.  And it’s amazing what you can then start to build up in your life and I’ve seen it happen as soon as you start doing those visions of what, what it is you want to achieve. All of a sudden you get much more motivated about doing the mundane things. Like let’s say setting up an SRS account, maybe before you knew it was on your to do list and it’s been on there for 3 years. All of a sudden you’re like, “oh yeah, I’m going to be traveling for six months. I need to open the SRS account, get saving… my tax, get more out of it.” Because a lot of these, a lot of things around your money and investing in finance is boring. And that’s why people don’t do it. But if you’ve got this driving vision of, yeah, why not Ferrari man, come on I’m going to do it then, it gets you out of bed, it gets you up early, it gets you looking into side hustles and side businesses and all that kind of side of it.  And the money side then just miraculously starts to fall into place.

Reggie: Nice. I think you talk about side hustles like businesses and that’s something that you attempted to do right? And it’s probably something that a lot of people will also explore. You know in the process of trying to do like mini retirements and all right. In a sense, to some people it’s not a mini retirement, it’s an attempt to retire now. So it’s like, I am done with my corporate job 10 years in audit. I have enough and I really want to switch out. Right? So to them it’s not like I’m not pausing, I just want to end it here. So then, the whole like side income side hustle thing becomes a thing. It becomes a real idea that people are entertaining. Right, so could you just kind of share your experience on that? 

Max Keeling: If people wanted some inspiration of what that might look like, there’s a podcast that I highly recommend which is Travel like a Boss by Johnny FD.  There’s a guy called Johnny FD, he is a legend in building location independent businesses. Every week, he interviews different people from around the world that are traveling around the world and are building businesses on the side. The concept is on the one end, it could be building a small online business that covers your living costs. So you’re not looking to make huge amounts of money, but let’s say you could make SGD 50,000 a year and you were traveling for a year that actually that 1 year costs you nothing. 

You’re not necessarily looking to work loads of hours, but you just want to build something on the side. And there were other people that are running multi-million dollar businesses whilst being location independent.  So again, it doesn’t mean that if you drop out of the corporate world you can no longer earn good money. You definitely can, there’s people earning decent money.  Johnny FD basically gives you case studies on every week of people are doing interesting things. I think it’s also realizing no investment is purely passive. I think I see a lot of people obsess with, they want to buy rental properties because it is passive income.

Reggie: Oh yeah. 

Max Keeling: No. Property are not passive, it’s a hassle. But some people love the hassle and other people hate it. If you buy index tracker funds that are passive, which we’re big fans of it, Providend and I am personally, there’s still an element of you need to know what you’re doing, you might need to monitor them, there’s rebalancing. So same as if you want to do this retirement idea, you still potentially need an income. You still got to be active in some way. So that aside, the common type of things are doing some kind of online business. Because that way you don’t have to be in a particular time zone, you can work whatever hours you want. If we’re talking about online businesses, typically it’s selling some kind of product, selling some kind of service, or it’s a content website with adverts. If you’re selling a product, it’s going to be this kind of drop shipping idea where you find somebody that makes park benches in China, you build a website.

Reggie: That sells park benches.

Max Keeling: Only sells park benches. Somebody buys on your website, you directly send that order to the supplier in China, the supplier sends it to your end customer. You don’t have warehouses, you don’t have stock, you don’t have anything. You just build that frontend and you drive traffic. So that is drop shipping. If I have just blown your mind, like “oh my God, I don’t need a physical product.” Go and look up, drop shipping.  The next could be a service. So some of it might be, let’s say you like video editing. You could…

Reggie: I don’t.

Max Keeling: You don’t, but someone might do. You could edit people’s videos for them for  a fee. And again, they engage you through a website but you could do that in any time zone you wanted. And then the other side is maybe your hobby is cooking. You could start a cooking website with recipes on it, which then drives traffic to that website. You’ve then got adverts on there and you earn a small fee for every time people click in or you sell recipes. Because that’s broadly the kind of businesses that people are building out there today to then say, I want to be able to make 50,000, 100,000, 200,000 a year. 

And so there are things that I’ve dabbled with. And if someone was to take a mini retirement, I would say go to Chiang Mai. So I spent 3 months in Chiang Mai. It turns out that is the number one place in the world for digital nomads. There’s more co-working spaces there than you’ve ever seen. Internet is really fast. There’s a whole ecosystem of people supporting each other and people will go and spend months there to learn off each other. And I went to talks by a YouTuber that said, this is how I make USD 300,000 a year from YouTube. And you’re like, wow, this is amazing. 

Reggie: I need to go there to do an interview series. My goodness, that would be amazing. 

Max Keeling: You could just go to different co-worker every day. 

Reggie: It was like, “hi, I’m looking for people…”

Max Keeling: Speak to someone that says, “Hey, watch YouTube.” And they’d say, “I’m a coder.” So that’s another common one. If you’re a coder out there, you don’t have to change careers. Just go and code in a different country.

And a common pushback I get is, “oh I’ve got kids. So this one wouldn’t work for me, this is a young person’s thing.” I like me and my wife met a number of people though, they had young kids and they were traveling and they were coders. So they would go and spend 6 months somewhere, enroll their kids in the local nursery. And they would get jobs allocated to them so they could just work whatever hours they wanted and then they would move. So you can get creative, but yeah, you go to places like Chiang Mai, and that’s why I went to Gran Canaria. You find certain places in the world get onto people’s rotation list of why you go around and you just learn a lot from other people and see what someone’s doing next to you and you’re like, “wow! I never thought of doing that.”  There’s definitely people making really good money and they’re working. So you might say, oh, but that’s not retirement, but they’re doing it in a country they want to and they’re dictating their own hours. So you can work 4 hours a week if you want to. But equally, some people love working. So if you want to work 30, 40 hours a week, great! Go and do wake surfing, like you said in Australia. That’s really what that’s about. 

Reggie: But then you still came back to work in that sense right? So you’ve done all of these right?  You work in the big corporate and then you’ve tried all these crazy things that people think are crazy, but it’s getting more and more normal. But then you still decide to come back and you join Providend, you’re full-time working on a job essentially. 

Max Keeling: Yeah. 

Reggie: Why? 

Max Keeling: Yes. That’s a really good question. So I started doing the coaching and I did it all online. Didn’t meet anyone physically, did it all through Zoom. So this is 2016, 2017, 2018, and I was trying to sell courses as well online.  And for me, I’m still a financially ambitious person so I don’t necessarily want to eat rice and beans but it means I’m in Bali.

Reggie: Not a minimalist. 

Max Keeling: For me the coach inside, I couldn’t see a way of scaling it after I did it for a while. And I’d looked at different models. And so for me, actually what I found was that I loved the financial planning piece with people, like getting them excited about their life vision. Because again it often they’ve not thought about it, they’re busy at work and all of a sudden you’re coaching people on, “hey this could happen.” And because I love numbers and spreadsheets, you could actually show people whether that’s on track or not.  

Then I realized like I love investing more than most. Like I love reading fact sheets, whereas most people won’t.  I realized that actually this scalable way for me to earn decent money is, maybe I work with a small number of people and I can charge for that. But I won’t go back to having a 9 to 5, working 60 hours a week. That say, if I keep it small and I work with more affluent people. So people have got say SGD 2,000,000 to SGD 20,000,000, then I can help those 30 or 40 families live an amazing life. And I can achieve my own financial independence as well and then with the support of Providend, so I’ve just realized this might lead to a lot of people contacting us now wanting to replicate this. But you know, Providend has been going 20 years, they’ve got a base here. We’ve got staff, we’ve got the support mechanism. So if I want to go and work in Ibiza in my home for 3 months, I can do that because we’ve got the machine running in Singapore.  And a lot of my clients, I work with them on Zoom anyway even if they’re in Singapore.  So it wouldn’t be unusual if I was talking to them remotely and they all know what my vision is.

And I almost feel like it’s a bit like if you went to CA (California), a strength coach. You want to see that they can actually lift something impressive or you want to see a fitness professional that’s got a body that you want. 

Reggie: Not one with a belly right? 

Max Keeling: Yeah! So I feel I’ve got to walk the walk as well, I’ve got to be showing. This is my lifestyle, it’s not for everyone but here’s a blueprint of what you could do. So I have kind of ended up back in a job, but I’ve crafted it totally differently.  And I’ve made a business that I think scalable for me, but I will only take it to a certain level. And then I’m still interested in the side hustle. I’m still interested in selling those park benches on behalf of some Chinese manufacturer.

Reggie: I love your references. Vineyard, park benches. 

Max Keeling: Ferrari.

Reggie: Yeah, it’s like wow, it’s interesting. 

Max Keeling: Yeah. So I think the importance as well is all business I run it with my wife together evolved over time. So what you’ve got to let go of is, and I was like this for a long time is, ah I would start a business but I just can’t think of an idea. Whereas actually you just got to start something and learn the ropes and if it fails, good. Because you’ve learned something and you know what doesn’t work, now you can develop something else. Maybe your 5th business might work. But if it just stays in your head it’ll never happen. 

So when I left Barclays in 2016, I didn’t, I had no intention of becoming a financial advisor. But things evolve over time and you get to talk to more people and you figure out how it could work. So me becoming a financial advisor is… that’s just a regulated thing you’ve got to do if you want to manage people’s money. So I don’t see it that I’m a financial advisor. I still see it more that I’m coaching people on their money and helping them get the life they want. I just have to be regulated to do that.

Reggie: You are using a license to do that. 

Max Keeling: Yeah. So most people you hear, they don’t go into this with a full-fledged idea of what they want. It could be starting a business and it makes nothing. But you’ve tried it, you know you’ve tried it. You haven’t just sat in your banking job at DBS and thought “I’d love to write a blog on cooking but it won’t make any money.” It doesn’t need to just… have you started a blog, have you had a go at doing it? Have you had a go writing, have you put it out there on Facebook and social media and got over that fear that your friends are going to laugh at you because you’ve put out cooking recipes?

Reggie: I know. 

Max Keeling: Yeah. 

Reggie: I run a podcast. 

Max Keeling: Exactly, and you’re putting yourself out there and then it’s scary and you’ve got to. And maybe you don’t know how you’re going to monetize it. But you just start and you see where it leads.

Reggie: Nice. So you have done this unconventional thing and a lot of things are changing because once you kind of break out of the mold, everything is possible right? It’s like you can do this, you can do that there’s so many other things. And I think you’ve shared a lot of great stuff. But I wanted to pick your brain a little bit, last question. 

Max Keeling: Yeah. 

Reggie: What are some seismic global themes that are changing? That will push someone further into a different way of life rather than like, “oh 9 to 5, till 65 kind of thing.”

What are some forces globally that you see happening? 

Max Keeling: Number one we’ve touched on is COVID. I think that has definitely if you assumed you had to have an office job, as an accountant, you’ve just been forced to work from home. And what we’ve seen is some people have loved it and I’ve actually found them more productive and some people have hated it and said I can’t wait to go back to the office. That’s a good experiment for yourself. Hopefully that’s given people some ideas about their current job. Could they see that as a way of crafting a lifestyle that they’re not necessarily the office? So that’s definitely a big theme. 

And then on the back of that, we’ve now seen it’s like compared to 10, 15 years ago, the technology that’s available to you, like Zoom, like Teams, like the Google Suite of things like you know for this podcast, you shared with me a document on Google Docs. A lot more of that stuff now where you can share stuff around the world and share documents before you would have needed a whole set up to do that. And now it’s just easy.

The other big theme is, there’s a lot more of what are called digital nomads now than they used to be. And what a lot of people do is offer themselves out to do services. So say this podcast, you shared you don’t want to edit a podcast yourself, but you could find someone in Chiang Mai that all they do is edit podcasts and you pay them a fee. 

From a global theme point of view, it’s less about if you want to start a small business. It’s not necessarily about you hiring staff and getting a physical location which was what you used to do. Now you can employ people remotely and you could never meet them, and that was not probably as possible 20 years ago. Like the only people that are outsourcing jobs 20 years ago would have been banks and large corporate and two call centers and India. Singapore used to be considered a low cost location and outsource. So now that you can do that on a micro level, you know you can delegate tasks and find someone that you pay per hour or on a retainer.  So again when you start looking into these stuff, it just, you realize you’re not on your own trying to do something. Someone’s already solved a lot of this.  And so that makes it a lot easier to go and do some of these things. 

Then I think things like Airbnb have changed things a lot as well. Like before maybe if you’re traveling, you’ve got to stay in hostels. Now it’s a lot easier to rent somewhere for a week, 2 months, 3 months. It’s not about, whereas here usually you’ve got to get a lease for 12 months. So actually being able to move around, it’s a lot easier than it used to be. And then, there’s just so many case studies of people doing this stuff now and sharing and podcasts. 

Reggie: Yes. 

Max Keeling: That’s definitely been an eye opener for me and I probably spent 2 years listening to people like Johnny FD and London Real and them having different people that aren’t famous people. They’re just normal people. 

Reggie: People are just doing their thing. 

Max Keeling: Yeah! And then they say, “oh I’ve built a million dollar business selling park benches again.” And you’re like, “wow!” Like I assumed entrepreneurs like to be like Richard Branson and people like that. It’s like, no, even a quarter of a million dollar business is a tiny, tiny micro business. But if you weren’t 250 grand, you might be like, wow that’s great. You’re a tiny business. 

So I think it’s easier more than ever now to go and find someone that resonates with you. And whether it is that traveler type or whether it is the internet mogul earning loads. You can go and listen to more information. And the technologies there, it’s cheap. It’s just about, I think like you said, like lifting the veil of I have to work for big corporate if I want to earn good money and I have to put loads of hours in. I have to work my ass off and do a hundred hour weeks.  There’s an element of you’ve got to do the work. But it’s just having that realization that actually there’s lots of other things you could do. 

Reggie: The world is different now. 

Max Keeling: Yeah. 

Reggie: Just go and give it a shot. 

Max Keeling: Yeah. 

Reggie: Nice. Nice. Thank you. Thanks for coming. Thanks for sharing. 

Max Keeling: Awesome. 

Reggie: Thank you. 

Max Keeling: Cool.

Reggie: Hey! I hope you learned something useful today and truly appreciate that you took the time off to better your life with The Financial Coconut. Knowledge is that much more powerful and interesting when shared, debated and discussed. Join our community Telegram group, follow us on our social signup for weekly newsletter, everything is in the description below. And if you love us, want to help us you can definitely share the podcast with your friends and all your socials. 

Also, if you have some interesting thoughts to share or know someone that you want to hear more from, reach out to us through hello@thefinancialcoconut.com. With that, have a great day ahead. Stay tuned next week and always remember: personal finance can be chill, clear and sustainable for all.

Reggie: So we have three questions that we ask everyone. The first one is what is the core life principle that you hold closely to? 

Max Keeling: Yes, I gave you some thought.  I think it would be doing well. Whatever task you’re given, go and do it to the best of your abilities. I remember when I joined KPMG which is the accountancy firm that I joined, one of the partners gave a speech and said, “when we go out on audit, I’m going to ask you sometimes to do things like photocopying” and you’re going to think “I’m a graduate, why am I photocopying?” and he says, “because I could photocopy as a partner. But you can’t do my job.” So what we need is people to just give the best they can and do whatever role, and that’s always stuck with me.  I think whenever I was in a corporate job, I was always wanting to be the best employee I could be and that opens a lot of doors. 

So if you are looking to ask for a sabbatical and you’re the lowest graded person at work, guess what? Maybe they’re going to say no. But if you are that A star player and you work really hard and you’re awesome at everything you do, it’ll be a lot easier and people will bend over backwards to say that we really, really want to retain you. So we’re going to let you have a six months or 12 months off.  

Same when I moved into online business, I want to research, I want to do the best I can, I want to find role models. When I moved into financial advisory, who are the best financial advisors in the world, I want to emulate them. So it’s not that I think I’m the best, but it’s that whatever I do I want to do well at it. I think if more people could have that attitude without assuming there’s anything in it for them, then they’ll find people bend over backwards to help them. 

Reggie: Nice, good stuff. 

The next one is, what is a personal finance advice that you feel needs to be further propagated? 

Max Keeling: Well, I would say… some things we’ve touched on, you don’t need to be number savvy to be interested in investing in lifestyle planning. Just kind of what we’re talking about.  I think it’s, I’m going to give you three. So one is get more excited about building a vision for yourself. Two, is I think most investments for most people should only be track of funds and they shouldn’t be picking individual stocks and funds.

Reggie: Taking a stand here. 

Max Keeling: People should go and look into that and there’s I’m sure there’s a whole podcast in itself. And something I see here is a lot of people using insurance for investing. Don’t use insurance for investing, unless it’s for tax planning and very specific. Go and drive your own lifestyle planning, get excited about it. Don’t assume you need complicated products. Go and investigate index trackers. And for most people you can build your dream lifestyle, just that set up. 

Reggie: Nice. Thank you. 

Number three, which part of your life are you giving additional focus on now? 

Max Keeling: It’s probably fitness and time management. So whenever you start a new project… 

Reggie: That’s like three focuses.

Max Keeling: It is. But they’re all interrelated because I’ve thrown myself into building my client base and helping people and research and what people should do. So I’ve probably got the health and fitness bit. I’ve probably neglected a bit more. So I’m trying to move, get better with my time management and move more into health and fitness. 

Reggie: Thank you. I wish you all the best. 

Max Keeling: Thank you very much. 

Reggie: Thank you. Awesome.

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